Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cap of Courage

Journal Entry: Orange County, Virginia; May 5, 1863 after the Battle of Chancellorsville.
With Fredericksburg secured by our artillery on the heights, the entire Federal Army determined to move west and cross the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford on their mission to reach Richmond. This route runs right through my farm; the entire area from the Wilderness Tavern east up the Plank Road to the church and Chancellorsville has, this week, seen nearly two hundred thousand troops battling where just a few families make their homes, leaving not one chicken, not one cow, not one growing grain. The Wilderness Tavern, at my property edge, was once the scene of lively parties; now a hospital, a scene of death. It will be remembered now as the site where General Jackson had his arm amputated; he has been removed to the south and should recover. Were this not my father’s fathers’ home, I would follow Betty west where there is true wilderness, for my Wilderness shall never seem the same; though the earth and soil are remarkably resilient, I fear I am not. The whispers I once heard have turned to screams and I cover my ears.

We have ridden 80 miles in just the last 24 hours chasing Stoneman’s Cavalry back across the Rapidan. I am within a mile of my home and have not seen it; my house and the blacksmith shop may not even be standing. I am told that the fine family home of our friend, Ves Chancellor, burned to the ground under shot and shell. My house is not so fine, but it is where my mother gave birth to me and where I have always expected to see my own children born.

With tens of thousands more casualties over the last few days, we rest a day, before we ride again. Even outnumbered ten to one, we know this landscape; we are this land. We know the roads and routes that make up this region and how to move undetected through the tangle of trees. They should have known where this would lead; we would not run from our homes. So now, the Federal Army has at last retreated back north across the river, but they will return to this route, renewed and resolved to take Richmond. They have seemingly unlimited resources and, through depletion, will whittle my world down to its last little bit of split wood, leaving only a splinter.

Five yards off to my left, a flash of red, white, and black dresses a downy woodpecker hanging upside down, inspecting every inch of a split rail fence, before leaving unrequited. I watch now in rapture. He knows his task, moving up and down along each rail seeking sustenance; he does not feel sorry for himself at the lack left behind by the thousands of invaders; he moves along the rail, doing what he must. The Virginia Pamunkey Indians say that the red crest of the downy woodpecker is its cap of courage. Surely, the whispers have sent him to me this day that I might find courage as well.


  1. Oh surely they did.
    "The whispers I once heard have turned to screams and I cover my ears." I loved this line, but the last paragraph, the downy woodpecker, perfect.

  2. And I forgot to say that I love the artwork here.


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